More than 75 per cent of Greenlanders have voted in favour of self-rule in a referendum that paves the way for independence from Denmark.
A total of 75.54 per cent voted “yes” to greater autonomy, while 23.57 per cent said “no,” the local government said.
A self-rule proposal hammered out with Denmark earlier this year gives Greenland, which was granted semi-autonomy from Copenhagen in 1979, rights to potentially lucrative Arctic resources, as well as control over justice and police affairs and, to a certain extent, foreign affairs.
The new status will take effect on June 21, 2009.
The head of the local government Hans Enoksen hailed the outcome in an emotional televised address.
“I say thank you to the people of Greenland for this overwhelming result. Greenland has been given a mandate to take another step” toward independence, he said.
Fireworks lit in celebration
In Nuuk, the capital that is home to a quarter of the island\’s 57,000-strong population, fireworks lit up the night sky even before the final results were announced.
Opinion polls prior to the referendum had suggested the result would be a clear “yes.”
Anne Sofie Fisker, a voter in her 60s, was prophetic as she left a Nuuk polling station earlier in the day.
“It\’s a day to celebrate, a historic day, one that I have waited for for years and years,” she told AFP.
“It was time for us for to regain our rights and freedoms that were stolen from our ancestors, a people of free and proud hunters whose lands were colonised” by Denmark 300 years ago, said David Brandt, a former fisherman.
Others however, including Johannes Mathiassen, feared the self-rule “is too early, and the country is not ready to assume these new responsibilities.”
Lucrative oil and gas deposits
There are potentially lucrative revenues from natural resources under Greenland\’s seabed, which according to international experts is home to large oil and gas deposits.
Melting ice in the Arctic owing to climate change could make the region more accessible to exploration in the future.
The countries ringing the Arctic Ocean – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – are currently competing over territorial claims in the region and Greenland is keen to garner its share.
A Danish-Greenlandic commission has proposed among other things that “the revenues from activities related to raw materials be distributed to Greenland” in return for reducing annual subsidies from Copenhagen.
“Self-rule will bring with it only good things for Greenland,” said Lars-Emil Johansen, who was prime minister of the island from 1991 to 1997 and who helped bring about its semi-autonomous status in 1979.
Home to the US Thule radar base, Greenland will also with its new status be consulted on foreign and defence policy, which are now decided by Copenhagen, but Nuuk would not have the final say and little is expected to change in that area.
Greenlandic as official language
Greenlanders, who voted to withdraw from the European Union in a 1982 referendum, will be also be recognised as a distinct people in line with international law, and Greenlandic will be recognised as the official language.
Most of the parties in the local parliament were in favour of self-rule, but a fringe movement, backed by a single political party, the Democrats, had opposed it.
“With such a tiny population it is impossible to provide the human contributions needed to turn Greenland into a modern and independent state,” politician Finn Lyng said.
With its 2.1-million square kilometre (840,000 square mile) surface, 80 per cent of which is covered by ice, Greenland is the world\’s largest island and contains 10 per cent of the world\’s fresh water reserves.
It counts 57,000 inhabitants, 50,000 of whom are native Inuits.
In 2007, the territory received subsidies of 3.2 billion kroner (432 million euros, $US540 million ) from Denmark, or about 30 per cent of its gross domestic product.
The local government said 71.96 per cent of the island\’s 39,000 eligible voters had cast ballots.